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Facing transparency head-on

Facial recognition technologies have been used for security and safety applications for years in the United States and abroad. Due to high costs and technological limitations, it was used mostly for homeland security to identify terrorists and protect airports. But over the past several years, facial technologies have evolved and reduced in cost, enabling the development of convenience applications to help us better connect with friends and loved ones and to organize our thousands of photos.

With cameras being attached to every phone, computer and tablet, along with virtually unlimited storage space, most of us now have photo collections numbering in the thousands. But much in the same way search engines made navigating the Internet easier, we need better ways to search through our photos to find the ones we seek. And developers are responding to the need by developing new applications to allow you to not only search by date and location, but also by person. Powered by facial recognition algorithms, these applications ease the search for those photos that include your father, daughter or significant other.

We recognize that privacy concerns about misuses of facial recognition exist. But privacy and innovation need not be mutually exclusive, as some seem to believe. What is needed is an educated and rational discussion about facial recognition. This discussion should focus on ensuring that the benefits and innovations that can be achieved while personal privacy is protected.

{mosads}Fortunately, a multi-stakeholder group — companies, government organizations and privacy advocates — has been having this discussion for over a year and working to develop a blueprint for facial recognition policies and procedures. Hosted by the White House’s National Telecommunications Information Administration, we are finally at a place where we are drafting these guidelines that balance privacy and innovation.

We all came to the table with the hopes for the same outcome: to help users be confident that their privacy will be protected when using businesses use facial recognition technologies.

Admittedly, many of us have differing opinions as to what that outcome looks like. But after 16 months of working together, some of the privacy advocates decided it was better to abandon the negotiation process than to continue.

The groups that abandoned the talks think there should be one default rule to govern all uses of facial recognition: opt-in before use. But this just doesn’t make sense. Would a store need to get opt-in consent from a shoplifter before using facial recognition technology? Should police get opt-in consent from a missing child before using this technology to find them? And should we have to get opt-in consent from every friend and family member before we tag him or her in our own photos?

Rather than figuring out the best responses to these situations, the groups just stormed out of the room and the discussion.

This abandonment is a setback but not a work stoppage. We believe in creating guiding principles. We think we can reach consensus on transparency, notice, data security and giving users meaningful control over the sharing of their facial recognition information with anyone who otherwise would not have access. It is disappointing that others did not have that confidence.

We hope that prudence will trump emotion and these groups will return to the discussions and rejoin us in creating a product policy solution that serves the public interest.


Szabo is senior policy counsel for NetChoice, a trade association of eCommerce businesses and online consumers all of whom share the goal of promoting convenience, choice and commerce on the net.

Tags facial recognition technology Transparency

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